Saudi women’s rights defender detained for social media activity, recently disappears

Saudi women’s rights defender detained for social media activity, recently disappears

Ms. Manahel Nasser al-Otaibi is a Saudi fitness instructor and blogger residing in Riyadh who was vocal about female empowerment on her social media platforms. On November 16, 2022, she was summoned for interrogation at the al-Sahafa police station in Riyadh because of her social media engagement. She was later transferred to al-Malaz Prison, where she has been detained ever since. She has not been convicted and is still waiting for a trial date. Her family has not heard from her since November 5, 2023.

Al-Otaibi is a popular blogger and fitness instructor on social media in Saudi Arabia. Prior to her arrest, Manahel al-Otaibi was active on Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram where she shared fitness videos as well as peaceful posts advocating for liberal dress codes for women, LGBTQ+ rights and the abolition of male guardianship. She was particularly vocal about violations of the fundamental rights of women within the kingdom, notably using hashtags that translate to #societyisready and #abolishguardianship to call for reform of the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia. Al-Otaibi also once walked in the streets of Riyadh to go to the market without wearing an abaya nor a hijab.

On November 16, 2022, al-Otaibi was summoned for interrogation at the al-Sahafa police station in Riyadh, where she was mainly questioned about her social media activity regarding women’s rights and her outings without proper clothing.

During her interrogation, she was not provided with an attorney, nor was she informed of the charges against her. After her questioning, the police officers did not permit al-Otaibi to go back home, and transferred her 15 days following her arrest to al-Malaz prison in Riyadh, without an arrest warrant.

On January 18, 2023, she appeared before the Criminal Court of Riyadh. The judge dismissed her case and transferred it to the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) which has exclusive jurisdiction over crimes falling under the 2017 Anti-Terrorism Law and has been notoriously used to sentence human rights defenders to lengthy prison sentences.

On July 19, 2023, al-Otaibi’s trial started before the SCC in Riyadh, where she was charged with various fabricated terrorist crimes. She was pressured to confess by her state-appointed lawyer but refused to do so. Her trial was adjourned without justification, and she has never appeared before a court since that date, remaining in detention in al-Malaz prison.

Since the beginning of her detention in al-Malaz prison in Riyadh, al-Otaibi has been subjected to various forms of physical and psychological abuse from another inmate, including beatings, bites, and death threats. Her relatives have lost all contact with her since November 5, 2023.

On November 29, 2023, MENA Rights Group and ALQST for Human Rights submitted her case to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and requested its urgent intervention.

On December 14, 2023, MENA Rights Group and ALQST for Human Rights submitted Manahel's case to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, requesting her urgent intervention.

Mandate holders of the UN Special Procedures including the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders issued a communication on Ms. al-Otaibi and her sister Fouz, sharing their concern over Ms. al-Otaibi’s pending trial. They urged the Saudi authorities to provide information concerning the legal grounds for the arrest and detention of Ms. al-Otaibi.

Timeline

December 14, 2023: MENA Rights Group and ALQST for Human Rights submit Manahel's case to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, requesting her urgent intervention.
November 29, 2023: MENA Rights Group and ALQST for human rights submit an urgent appeal to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
November 5, 2023: Al-Otaibi’s relatives receive a last call from her.
July 26, 2023: Another hearing before the Specialised Criminal Court is scheduled but cancelled on the day of.
July 19, 2023: Al-Otaibi appears before the Specialised Criminal Court. The trial is adjourned without justification, nor a new trial date.
January 18, 2023: First hearing of al-Otaibi before the Criminal Court of Riyadh. The case is dismissed and transferred to the Specialized Criminal Court.
November 16, 2022: Manahel al-Otaibi is summoned to the Al-Sahafa police station for interrogation about her social media activity.

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